When I was little, my Mom was really into photography. She was never a professional, but she did win an award once – for a particularly embarrassing candid photo of me. Let’s just say it involved a dance costume, a Madonna-inspired hairstyle, and a pre-teen pout. While I was not always keen to be one of her subjects, I did find the process of developing the pictures fascinating.

She turned one of our closets into a dark room and I vividly remember watching the progression, waiting in anticipation to see how the pictures would turn out. There were so many factors that went into how the photo looked in the end, including multiple bins of chemicals and specific amounts of time the paper needed to be in each one. Every aspect could influence the end result – the ingredients, processes, camera, and photographer. Each factor had the ability to make up for, or sabotage, another.

The complex, step-by-step process used to develop film can be compared to the way variables add up, and end up, developing our own picture of health.

We are all individuals, made up of unique sets of genes and characteristics. What makes each of us even more distinctive is that diet, lifestyle and environment can add to the combination that determines whether our genes manifest into good health or poor.

To some degree, we’re able to choose to create a body that is either disease-resistant or inflammation-prone.

What you may find surprising is that for most chronic disease, your genes only make up 10-20% of your risk. That means diet, lifestyle, and environment are responsible for the other 80-90% of risk.

What you are putting in, on and around your body are all powerful influencers determining the status of our health. But we aren’t just affected by external things like the amounts of toxins we are exposed to through food we eat and products we use. Our overall health is also determined by our body’s internal ability to adequately eliminate those toxins, what nutrient deficiencies we may have, and any other stressors our bodies might endure.

As Chris Kresser, M.S., L.A.c, a global leader in functional and integrative medicine says, “genes may load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.”

There are dedicated fields of study that look at the external factors, and how they affect the manifestation of disease states to which we are genetically predisposed. To help you understand more fully how your genes are affected by your environment, I want to introduce a couple of integral terms:

  • Genotype: your genotype is your genetic makeup, or your DNA.
  • Phenotype: your phenotype is how that genetic makeup comes together with environmental influences to create your body’s physical appearance, behavior and to establish which health issues manifest.
  • Epigenetics: epigenetics is the study of variations in your phenotype caused exclusively by external or environmental factors (like nutrition status, toxin exposure, stressors). In other words, a change in your phenotype with no change in your genotype.
  • Nutrigenomics: a field of study within epigenetics dedicated solely to one aspect of your environment – your diet – which looks specifically at the influence of nutrients on gene expression in acute and chronic illness.
    • One particular aspect of nutrigenomics looks at genetic variations, known as SNP’s (single nucleotide polymorphisms) that can inhibit specific enzyme activity compromising your ability to absorb and process critical nutrients and/or perform proper detoxification. These variations can be tested for (rather inexpensively) and addressed with targeted supplementation and diet and lifestyle changes. I’ll be diving into these concepts in more detail later, but as a preview here are some SNP’s with clinical relevance that you may have heard of:
      • MTHFR: reduced ability to convert B vitamins to an active form resulting in fatigue, mood disorders, and chronic illness
      • COMT: reduced detoxification of estrogen and catecholamines – epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine – resulting in mood and hormone disorders
      • APOA2 and FTO: metabolic SNP’s related to increased appetite/weight and associated metabolic syndrome

Relating all of this back to that unsavory picture my Mom took of me years ago, think of the camera as your genotype and your diet and lifestyle as the process that happens in the dark room. It all works together to develop a photo, or in this case, your phenotype.

Let’s say you have a crappy camera, i.e. you’re genetically predisposed to carry disease. You can still get a good photo if you use your skills – in this case, diet and lifestyle choices – to carefully develop it the right way. Maybe your camera is high end (your genes are sparkling), but you are sloppy in the dark room (you overload your own healthy system with toxins via food, product, and environment); you could end up with a photo that is blurry or overexposed.

But there’s another layer to this. Literally.

Our internal detoxification processes, our nutrient status, and our immune response are all affected by our gut microbiome. And our gut microbiome is most affected by our environment.

Research has recently identified that the key determinant in allowing environmental factors to trigger faulty genes is having a leaky gut.

When “leaky gut” combines with environmental insults it acts as an alarm, waking those genes and allowing the predispositions to manifest.

So, using the photography analogy, think of your gut microbiome as the most integral variable of all: the dark room itself.

Where you develop your film is almost more important than how you take your pictures – it has to be dark, cool, and sealed up tight in order for the development method to complete successfully. So just as an open door or window letting light into your dark room will ruin the film or images you have in process, so does a leaky gut create havoc within your body.

When your gut microbiome is on-point, it acts as the primary barrier to damaging toxins (anything your body deems as foreign to your system – pathogens, chemicals, foods you don’t digest completely due to a sensitivity). To help facilitate this important duty, your intestinal lining is woven tightly like a piece of cheesecloth.

But, this lining can be damaged by various diet and environmental factors (e.g. overuse of antibiotics and NSAIDS like ibuprofen, consuming foods you are sensitive to, eating too much sugar, pesticides and other toxins from food and our environment). This causes your digestive system to become overly permeable, or “leaky.” (think of that cheesecloth now more like a tennis net).

And when this protective barrier breaks down, it takes down your entire system with it.

The association of leaky gut and disease is especially strong with autoimmune conditions, but it is also associated with many other conditions, including:

  • Allergies & food sensitivities
  • Alcoholism
  • Autism
  • Cardiac conditions
  • Childhood hyperactivity
  • Diabetes
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s & ulcerative colitis) & other digestive issues
  • Obesity
  • Mood/Cognitive disorders
  • Skin conditions (acne, psoriasis, eczema, rashes)

So no matter what you’re starting with, ask yourself how you would like your photo to turn out. You’ve got 80% of the power…how will you use it – and when?


For a personalized plan to change your diet and lifestyle to reduce inflammation, build a healthy gut microbiome, and take control of your health check out my book, INFLAMED: Discover the root cause of inflammation and personalize a step-by-step plan to create a healthy, vibrant life. 





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